Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pay Attention

"My sense of immortality is when the people I teach the various things begin to teach it themselves. Then I am assured I won't become an empty memory. My breath will continue to breathe into the future generations."
-Bruce (subiyay) Miller-

Traditional Twana Story

There was one little girl who never paid attention to anything that was being said by the elders. She was always talking when she was supposed to be listening. When the other children tried to be attentive to the teachings she would poke them or cause disruptions in some other way. She did this so much that everyone called her “assH3‘qap” (as sha kop); which means stupid or foolish. They called her by this name so much that everyone began to accept it as her real name. 

Time passed all too suddenly for assH3’qap, for she knew it…it was time for her to go into the wilderness on her spirit quest. Early one morning her grandmother woke her up and told her, “It is time for you to go into the wilderness and find sk3’lalitut, your spirit power. Do not come home until you find it…and bring a gift to benefit those who are yet to come. With that, assH3’qap was hastily escorted to the foot of the mountain. She was quickly left alone by her grandmother. 

Now, for the first time in her life she was truly alone, no one to pester, no instructions to ignore, no one to call her “assH3’qap”. Still at first she did not worry, it was early in the day, she was warm and nothing looked scary. Not yet that is…assH3’qap began to wander about, here and there. Night was fast approaching. The temperature fell. In the increasing darkness of nightfall she could hear sounds, strange sounds. There was no one to huddle up to for warmth. There was nothing to eat. There was no one to talk to. She was all alone in the wilderness. Alone…and she didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She had never listened…she knew it all already or there were other things to do or she didn’t have the time. Now the time of endless excuses was finished. Indeed she was assH3’qap. If only she had listened, she would know what to do. 

It was dark. It was cold. assH3’qap was lonely. There were scary unseen things making noises in the darkness. Finally, exhausted from fear of the unknown terrors that lurked in the darkness, she fell into a cold restless sleep. Morning came. It was much better now. It wasn’t scary anymore. But she was hungry, thirsty and scratched up from wandering naked through the dense brush in the dark. For three more nights she went through the same ordeal. Each day she was more hungry, more exhausted and more lonely. On the fourth night she found a hollow in the ground at the base of a huge cedar tree. It offered some degree of protection from the night wind. She wept through the night…pausing now and then to say, “Why was I so assH3’qap?” “Why didn’t I pay attention?” 

Very early, on the morning of the fifth day, just before dawn, she heard a tiny voice asking, “Why are you crying little girl?” She stopped her sobbing and looked around. She could see no one. Then she heard it again. “Why are you crying little girl?” It was coming from above her. She strained to see up in the limbs of the big cedar tree and saw a little bird. It was the one who was talking to her. She replied, “I’m crying because I’m so “assH3’qap”. I knew that I would be sent out here to find “something” but I never listened. Now, I don’t know what I’m supposed to look for. The little girl admonished assH3’qap, “Pay attention! Pay attention!” The little girl watched as the little bird made a nest. She watched what it was using and how it was putting it together. She took some flexible grasses and after a number of attempts she had made a crude little container somewhat like the little birds nest. She realized that she could put things in this crude little container and carry them in it. “I’ll call it a basket”, she exclaimed joyfully. People will be able to carry more things than with just their hands. It will be my gift for the people of the future. 

assH3’qap wandered around the mountain side, putting berries, and other items in her new basket. Night fell. She tried to sleep but she was cold and she ached where she was scratched up. She cried through the night. In the early morning, just before dawn, she heard a voice asking,”Why are you crying little girl?” She told her story, and how she was gifted with the skill of basket making. And said, “I know that I should be thankful for what I have received, but my skin is sore from being scratched. I’m assH3’qap and don’t know how to protect it.” The voice said, “Pay attention!” The little girl looked up, and it was the cedar tree talking to her. She could see where some bark had come loose. The wind had worked it back and forth until it was flexible. “Use my skin”, said the great cedar as the bark dropped down to the little girl. She took the softened bark and with plant fibers she wove it into a dress. The dress protected her bare skin from the harshness of the environment. The girl was happy now because she had two gifts, a basket and a garment. She continued her journey around the mountain. 

It was colder now than before. Night fell again. This time it was very cold. There was no one to huddle next to for warmth. Aching with cold she once again wept through the night. Just before dawn she heard a voice asking, “Why are you crying little girl?” She said, “I know I should be thankful because I have received two gifts already, but I’m so cold I ache.” “Pay attention!” the voice said. “Take this mountain goat wool that has tangled in my branches,” said the bush. The little girl took it. She held it against herself and felt how warm it became where it covered her. She put the wool in her basket and walked on. She came to a stream and sat down to rest. 

The girl took the warm goat from her basket and wondered aloud to herself, “I wish I knew how to fix wool so that it would stay together and I could make it into a garment without it falling apart, but I’m so assH3’qap.” A voice said, “Pay attention!” It was the flowing stream that was speaking to her. She looked into the stream and saw how the flowing stream had twisted some fibers into string. She did this with the wool and it stayed together; she wove it into a blanket. She wrapped it around herself, it was warm and she felt good. Now I have three gifts she exclaimed to herself. She took some cedar bark and twisted it too; with this she made a trump-line to secure her basket to her so that she didn’t have to carry it with her hands. Now I have four gifts she sighed to herself. 

The girl looked at the stream again. There were fish in the stream. She realized how hungry her people were at times. She exclaimed to herself, “If I wasn’t so assH3’qap, I could find a way for my people to catch those fish”. A tiny voice said, “Pay attention!” It was a spider who was talking. The little girl watched as it wove a web in the crotch of a branch. She took a limb and bent it in a circle. Then she twisted more fiber into string and constructed a web on this hoop. “My people will use this to dip fish out of the water”, she said. assH3’qap decided that it was time to return back to her people now. Wearing her new cedar dress, wrapped in her warm wool blanket, basket strapped to her for head and carrying a dip net, she made her way down the mountain towards the home of her people. 

It was the beginning of a new day. The children were playing at that place where the people lived. They saw a strange thing approaching the place where they stayed. They ran to where the adult people were gathered. “There is something very strange approaching us” they exclaimed breathlessly. The people went to see. And true enough a strange thing was approaching. It wasn’t naked like they were. It was covered with wondrous things. As it got closer they saw that it was the girl “assH3’qap”. They all rushed to see her. As they reached out to feel and touch the wonderful mysterious things that assH3’qap was wearing and carrying, they asked, “What is the most important gift that you have brought for the people?” 

assH3’qap replied: 

“It is the basket that will allow us to carry many things”. Then she said, “No…it is the strap that the basket hangs from. It frees our hands for other purposes”. Then she said, “No…it is the clothing that the cedar tree gave me. It will protect our skin from the elements”. Then she said, “No…it is the goat wool that the bush gave me to make a blanket. A blanket will protect the people from the cold”. Then she said, “No…it is the net that the spider showed me how to make, so the people can catch fish”. 

The people looked at the wonderful new gifts that the stupid little girl had brought for the people of the future. After a while assH3’qap said, “No…No…the most important gift that I brought for the people is to “Pay attention!”. Yes the gift of paying attention. You see…from the beginning of time all these things were here. The birds were making their basket nests. The cedar tree was offering its bark for clothing when it fell from the tree in soft shredded pieces. The mountain goats have always brushed off their shedding wool onto the bushes, where the birds gathered it to put a warm lining in their nest. The stream had always twisted fibers with its current. The spider has always wove its web right were we all could see. All these gifts have always been here, only no one paid attention. They have been overlooked since the beginning of time, until “I paid attention”. 

The people gave assH3’qap a new name. They called her sQulalchi (She who is a skilled weaver). Since that time her gift has remained the most important one to mankind, “Pay attention!” 

© Bruce subiyay Miller  
Bruce (subiyay) Miller was an artist, teacher, historian, storyteller and spiritual leader from the Skokomish Indian Reservation, near Shelton, Washington. He played a key role in conserving and sustaining the Twana language and culture of the Skokomish people. Growing up he absorbed language and culture from family members, and he dedicated his life to the preservation and teaching of Twana stories, ceremonies, healing practices, dance, and arts.  He  also revived and maintained the knowledge of traditional uses of plants for healing, ceremony, and food. Bruce was a skilled basket weaver and carver, speaks and teacher of  the Twana language, and he led the revival of a number of traditional Twana spiritual and ceremonial practices including the winter longhouse ceremonies and the first elk ceremony. Often described as the Skokomish Tribe's Renaissance man, Bruce worked as a playwright, actor, teacher and counselor around the world, but his most important role was  that of a teacher of the Twana tradition and culture. The National Endowment for the Arts honored his life’s work in 2004 with a National Heritage Fellowship and the First People’s Fund awarded him the 2005 Community Spirit Awar

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